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Grandson of janitor, first black mayor takes charge in St. Paul

Surrounded by family and with his wife Sakeena Futrell-Carter new St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter III shakes hands with District Court Judge Tanya M. Bransford, who preceded over his swearing in, during his inauguration at Central High School in St. Paul on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018. (Pioneer Press / John Autey)1 / 2
New St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter III shake hands with Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton following Dayton's remarks during the Carter's inauguration at Central High School in St. Paul on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018. (Pioneer Press / John Autey)2 / 2

ST. PAUL—St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter III, the grandson of a Humboldt High School janitor, ushered in his administration on a dramatic note Tuesday — calling for changes to police use-of-force procedures, a $50 college savings account for every child and a $15 citywide minimum wage.

The city's first black mayor also called for a new tone in government while criticizing the controversial third verse of the National Anthem as "an ode to slavery."

Before an audience of hundreds, the former St. Paul City Council member and state employee took the oath of office Tuesday at Central High School, his alma mater; he was sworn in by Hennepin County Judge Tanya Bransford, whose family has known the Carter family for generations.

Carter, 38, is St. Paul's first mayor of color and one of the youngest since the capital city's founding in 1854. He is the 46th mayor of St. Paul.

"Over the last year, many politicians have declined to answer when America was great," said Carter, in a rousing address that promised to celebrate rather than tolerate the city's diversity and double-down against economic inequality. "Here's my answer: We prove our greatness, again and again, with every generation that redeems the value of those powerful words that launched our democracy — 'We the People' — by fighting to ensure that 'we' truly means all of us."

The new mayor added later:

"Now is an exciting time for St. Paul. We have more places than ever to enjoy art and music and eat a great meal. We have big development opportunities ahead. And our population will soon reach an all-time high. St. Paul is a city with momentum. But we're also a place of deep inequity. And I live that too. I know firsthand how it feels to live on a block devastated by foreclosures, to long for a teacher who looks like my child, and to be stopped by police, over and over again."

The November election — which Carter won by a landslide, garnering more than 50 percent of the vote on election night — was still fresh in thoughts of Carter's supporters, including Gov. Mark Dayton.

Dayton said Carter brought "nurturing and compassion" to his role as executive director of the governor's Children's Cabinet.

But the mayoral campaign last year took an ugly turn, Dayton said, referring to campaign mailers from the St. Paul Police Federation that sought to link two guns stolen from Carter's home to an uptick in shots fired throughout the city.

"During my 40 years in politics, I've never before seen someone attacked for being robbed," said the governor, addressing the audience prior to Carter's oath of office.

St. Paul City Council President Amy Brendmoen and Central High School Principal Mary Mackbee also delivered remarks. A Muslim Imam, a Jewish rabbi and a Baptist pastor each delivered an invocation.

The audience included former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., newly sworn in Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, state Sen. Foung Hawj, DFL-St. Paul, state Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, and state Reps. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, and Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis.

Carter told the audience his first term would be built on three pillars — public safety, education and job creation. It will entail close partnerships with the St. Paul Public Schools and a departure from the statewide minimum wage, which is currently $7.87 for small businesses and $9.65 for large employers.

"Starting right away, I will work with Chief (Todd) Axtell to review and revise our police department's use of force policies," Carter said. "I will propose a partnership between business, philanthropy and nonprofit leaders to start every child born in St. Paul with $50 in a college savings account. And because no one who works full time should ever be stuck living in poverty, I will work closely with the city council to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour for every worker in our city as soon as possible. These are important initiatives and they will move St. Paul forward. But the real change, the lasting transformative change we seek will take much more than new policy. We need a new way at City Hall."

Former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton reminded the audience that, as a black mayor herself, she was unable to move mountains overnight or accomplish much without help from others, including the talents of everyday citizen volunteers.

"Trust me," she told the audience, "I've been there."

Carter, in his remarks, continued the theme, calling for greater public involvement in civic life through volunteerism and service on the city's municipal boards and committees.

"We will invite you to build sweat equity in our city through service," Carter said, to widespread applause. He quickly quipped: "Don't clap if you're not going to help."

Carter continued his day Tuesday with afternoon "office hours" at the Dark Horse Bar in downtown St. Paul.

On Wednesday, he will greet St. Paul residents throughout the day at Groundswell Coffee, El Burrito Mercado and the Goat Coffee House.

On Thursday, he will again host meet-and-greets at Golden Thyme, Hmong Village and the Rice Street Recreation Center, where he will take part in a service project.

And, on Friday, he'll be at Coffee Bene and Awash Market before his inaugural ball at the St. Paul Union Depot.

Carter's administration has already ushered in some telling changes, while also guaranteeing some continuity in city programs and services.

On Friday, following weeks of interviews that included input from a series of community hiring panels, his transition team announced the 10 members of his cabinet, including four returning department directors: St. Paul Public Works Director Kathy Lantry, Finance Director Todd Hurley, St. Paul Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hahm and Department of Safety and Inspections Director Ricardo Cervantes.

Bruce Corrie, a Concordia University economist who has specialized in studying the economic contributions of immigrants and minority groups — or "ethnic capital" — will oversee the city's department of Planning and Economic Development.

Corrie, in an interview, said his decision to seek the position was somewhat "last minute" but his "trickle-up" outlook on neighborhood development reflected that of the new mayor.

"I love the city of St. Paul," said Corrie, who has played a large role in branding cultural business districts such as Little Africa, around Snelling and University avenues, and Little Mekong, around Western and University avenues.

"If we can make it more open, like the mayor said, a place where everyone is welcome and at the same time achieve broad-based wealth creation — an intercultural oasis."

Corrie's appointment garnered some criticism from state Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, who said in an interview that the city has struggled to retain major employers such as Cray Supercomputers. Because of that, St. Paul needs a development director with experience recruiting large businesses, as opposed to working with smaller ones, Mahoney said.